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Solar Power Helped Keep the Lights On in India

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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india-overloaded-gridEvery day, at least 400 million Indians lack access to electricity. Another nearly 700 million Indians joined their fellows in energy poverty over the course of the last few days, or roughly 10 percent of the world’s population.

Oddly enough, some of the formerly energy poor—rural villagers throughout the subcontinent—found themselves better off than their middle-class compatriots during the recent blackouts, thanks to village homes outfitted with photovoltaic panels. In fact, solar power helped keep some electric pumps supplying water for fields parched by an erratic monsoon this year.

That monsoon is partly to blame for the blackouts as well. A lack of rain has meant a reduction in power from India’s hydroelectric dams. Pair that with problems with the supply of coal to burn and the northern half of India found itself with not enough electricity supply to meet demand. One ironic anecdote illustrates this conundrum nicely: coal miners in northern India were trapped when their electric lifts failed as a result of the blackout exacerbated by a lack of coal.

The thirst for electricity stems from burgeoning demand from India’s middle class, which has embraced everything from air conditioning to the electric-powered subway trains of New Delhi. India also enjoys some of the highest rates of what is known in the trade as “non-technical losses,” i.e. people hijacking electric supplies and not paying for it (as opposed to “technical losses,” like the amount of electricity lost via the physics of transmission itself and the like.) And then there are the politically popular programs like providing free power to farmers for irrigation pumps.

Such politics no doubt played a role. Tensions between state governments, the national government and power suppliers are legion, including some areas that take more electricity than they are supposed to at times. That’s the reason the energy minister, newly promoted to minister for home affairs for his stellar performance, gave for the first day of blackouts. And politics have prevented the kind of investment in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades that can prevent things like power lines sagging in the heat and shorting out via untrimmed trees. Wait, does that sound familiar?

The root cause of the massive back-to-back blackouts won’t be known for a while. It took three months to definitively trace the root cause of the 2003 blackout that shut down the U.S. Northeast along with parts of Canada to the aforementioned. But one root cause is already obvious: a crippling indifference to the basic needs of electrical infrastructure (the Indian government has declined to invest in an upgrade to the country’s aging grid)—and people. That kind of sounds familiar too.

Rotating blackouts, brownouts and power cuts are all too common in India thanks to a shortfall of electricity, so much so that it is taken as the normal state of affairs and major companies like Wipro build their own micro-grids to cope. As is the fact that those 400 million Indians—and the more than 1 billion people around the world like them—still lack access to modern energy.

Image: mckaysavage / Flickr.com

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dwbd 9:42 pm 08/1/2012

    Small modular reactors would be the ONLY way to give India a reliable decentralized Energy supply. The Slowpoke III, the FLIBE LFTR, many other are quite capable of providing a reliable 24/7, night/day, summer/winter, minimal fuel requirements, north/south, sunny/cloudy distributed power grid for developing countries:

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-DzYpuRgHpUo/TvJDhwLEsZI/AAAAAAAAQQA/SgivGku06io/s1600/SMRworld.png

    http://www.janleenkloosterman.nl/reports/ubattery_final_201111.pdf

    Link to this
  2. 2. jtdwyer 3:17 am 08/2/2012

    The only mention of solar power in this article is:
    “Oddly enough, some of the formerly energy poor—rural villagers throughout the subcontinent—found themselves better off than their middle-class compatriots during the recent blackouts, thanks to village homes outfitted with photovoltaic panels. In fact, solar power helped keep some electric pumps supplying water for fields parched by an erratic monsoon this year.”

    Oddly enough, I even have to wonder just how many lights were kept on by solar power, since there’s no hint here… More complete albeit commercially sourced information can be found at http://www.green-buildings.com/content/782512-india-hits-solar-power-milestone-midst-worst-blackout-decade

    Link to this
  3. 3. RDH 9:39 am 08/2/2012

    When we lost power last year for a week when tornadoes swept through the area, I brought in some of my outside landscaping lights each night.

    Link to this
  4. 4. grifter1337 9:57 am 08/2/2012

    That’s good thinking RDH. Now they need to design a “landscaping TV” so I can be comfy during my next power outage :)

    Link to this
  5. 5. DaRaco 4:11 am 08/3/2012

    @dwbd

    > “Small modular reactors would be the ONLY way to give India a reliable decentralized Energy supply.”

    In an article explaining that solar PV kept the lights on, you state the opposite without a shred of evidence.

    > “The Slowpoke III, the FLIBE LFTR…”

    Your plan is to use a failed experiment from the 1970s and a reactor that exists only on PowerPoint slides?!! Lucky you’re not in charge of energy policy – especially if we think about the reality of hundreds of thousands of small nukes all over the planet!

    Link to this
  6. 6. Postman1 8:21 pm 08/3/2012

    DaRaco – “nukes”? That usually refers to nuclear weapons and the small reactors dwbd referred to are not nukes, nor is it possible to make nukes from them. Whether the plan would work or not is debatable, but making them out to be bombs is wrong.

    Link to this
  7. 7. dwbd 8:02 pm 08/4/2012

    “…explaining that solar PV kept the lights on..”

    Give your head a shake dude. Solar PV kept the lights on when the sun was shining – So who needs lights, duh? Of course you could go off-grid solar, with big expensive, batteries but that would cost about 20-30X what just a little diesel or gas generator would cost. So I’m afraid you are living in the Pixie Power Fantasy Land.

    “..failed experiment from the 1970s and a reactor that exists only on PowerPoint slides..”

    Man where have you been the past 50 yrs. They’ve been running Nuclear shipping, submarines, icebreakers on small reactors for that long, and all kinds of experimental & research reactors. It is pretty simpleminded stuff, but I guess to simpletons, it is just too hard to contemplate. Instead simpletons keep telling us that Solar Energy is “free” – yeah, that’s why Japan is paying minimum 53 cents a kwh for it and Ontario is paying 40-80 cents per kwh for it. But yep, its free. “and the cost is falling” – yeah, right then why is it still 10-20X higher cost after 100 yrs of development?

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  8. 8. Lenbliss 7:35 pm 08/5/2012

    I would recommend that everyone consider the reactor that is already proven and used in India now. The Candu reactor uses uranium as it is purified from the mine. No enrichment is even desired and the rods can be recycled with little processing for a second cycle after intial use. No high pressures are used and it is essentially heavy water moderator type. It also, which you would surmise from the 2 cycle fuel rods, more efficient that other types. As any good scientist reading SciAmer knows, the best fuel for the long term is uranium. At current energy consumption, all fossils fuels will last us between 5000 to 10,000 years. It will likely be less due to increased use. Uranium would last 1,000,000,000 years (one billion years). We just need to learn how to use it better. If we harness nuclear fusion, we have enough energy to last till our sun dies.
    In response to the solar issue, use vanadium batteries, a very economical storage solution, and inexpensive. A better solution is storing on the grid using smart meters. The cost of the solar PV array becomes the major cost. A capital expense could be tax deductible and depreiated over time. A sufficient array will pay for itself in 10 years using an average cost of the utility, $0.13 per kw. I wonder why you say Japan and Canada pay so much more. I will be glad to offer my services to design a less expensive solution.

    Link to this
  9. 9. dwbd 9:19 pm 08/5/2012

    Latest NREL Solar installed prices for #1 Solar State in the USA is California @ $7.87 per peak watt.

    http://openpv.nrel.gov/rankings

    And the largest, newest commercial installations are $3.50 per peak watt.

    So for PVWatts for Los Angeles, is 17% CF, so that’s $55 per kw avg output for residential, fixed tilt, assuming perfectly aligned roof, no shade trees or buildings for 25 yrs, cleaned minimum weekly of all dust, bird droppings, leaves, insects, pollen etc. And that is pretty much useless without batteries, otherwise you will have zip for power at 7am, max at 12 noon, zip by 5pm. So just to last over one day you will need about 11 kwh/kwpk of lead-acid batteries at ~ $150/kwh or $1650/kwpk with 5 battery changes over 25 yrs with a present value of $4210 @ 5% interest. Lead-acid are still the cheapest batteries. So now we are up to $11.3k per kwpk and including charging round trip efficiency of 80% that’s 11.3/.13/.8 = $109k per kw avg output.

    That ain’t no $.13 per kwh – not “per kw”. It is about 20X the cost of the First-of-a-kind GenIII Nuclear in the USA, with an anti-nuclear nutjob running the NRC, 55X the cost of the Korean & China builds, where they have rational regulators.

    Solar PV is great for some of the power supply in an off-grid system, you still need a fossil fuel generator, but these are mickey-mouse applications, not relevant to any SERIOUS discussion of World or USA Energy supply.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Fanandala 3:24 pm 08/7/2012

    I am critical of the statement ” supplying water to parched fields”. Irrigation pumps are Kilowatt items. Way beyond the output of smallish solar panels, or even quite big ones. Not what you would expect some poor villager to have. I presume that the Villagers kept going with these archaic looking diesel pumps and generators that are still being built in India.

    Link to this
  11. 11. thesolarindia 11:43 pm 09/19/2012

    India’s power crisis has to be dealt with alternative energy- specially with solar power.A simple solar power system can be purchased at even INR 50,000 .This includes about 50 % subsidy from state and Central government. Some states in India have already set up policy for subsidy.But challenge is creating awareness about them to the masses.http://www.thesolarindia.com is on the mission to create such an awareness.

    Link to this
  12. 12. pvinverter 12:56 am 11/16/2012

    The PV exhibition has been held a week ago. My two colleges went there and has a deep knowing of India. The renewable energy India 2012 http://www.omnik-solar.com/news/6TH-RENEWABLE-ENERGY-INDIA-2012-EXPO

    Link to this
  13. 13. Sugandha001 6:33 am 12/4/2014

    Nice Post! It’s good to possess a spirit of how much electricity you use. You’ll have a superior point for compare if you retrace out how many kilowatt hours (kWh) you utilize per day, per 30 days, per year. Your usage bill will include that info as well.

    http://www.aurarays.com

    Link to this

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